Why Should Mekong Communities Care About "Sustainable Hydropower"?

October 2013

Why Should Mekong Communities Care About "Sustainable Hydropower"?
Translated from Thai
Content compiled by Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA)

Sai Tongman's peanut field situates on the Mekong riverbank in Nakon Panom, Thailand,.
His finger points at the peanut plot that was submerged by the unprecedented flood in late December, 2013.

By the end of the Indochina War (1974-1989), many countries in the Mekong basin began to open its doors to free market economy. Vietnam started to take the lead in dam building while Laos followed behind in terms of built and proposed hydropower projects. Today, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese companies march into Laos and Cambodia to claim a piece of hydropower development projects.
Extensive hydropower development projects continues to increase at an alarming rate. Thai government  persists in the belief that hydropower dams would elevate the country's social and economic development - even though local communities are crying for a halt. Meanwhile, Laos set its development agenda to be the "Battery of Southeast Asia." Amongst its proposal for 72 dams, 12 dams are undergoing construction while another 25 dams - which include 8 Mekong mainstream dams - are going through planning process. Xayaburi Dam, the first dam on the Mekong mainstream, has started its construction for at least a year now.
Although large-scale dams have only started to dominate Cambodian rivers, its proposed dam sites in the 3S river basin already pose a major threat to the Mekong mainstream. The 3S river basin is a confluence of three Mekong tributary rivers (Sesan, Sekong, and Srepok). This area is shared among three Mekong countries: Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. At present, Vietnam has already built around a dozen dams on the Sesan and Srepok. Their impacts are felt cross-border among Vietnamese and Cambodian riparian communities. Now, another set of dams are lining up to move forward. One of them is the Lower Sesan 2, partly funded by Vietnam.

Key Concepts and Principles Behind MRC's "Sustainable Hydropower"

Extracted from MRC's Knowledge Base of Benefit Sharing and Rapid Basin-Wide Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Tool (RSAT).

- The growing needs for hydropower development among Mekong countries to promote its economic dominance is the main driving force for cooperation in water resource and sustainable hydropower management.

- MRC holds the concept of "benefit sharing" as the main principle framing its Sustainable Hydropower Initiative at all levels starting from transboundary multi-national, national and local levels.

- In its work plan, MRC proposes a new set of thinking for water resource management. It promotes the use and adoption of experiences and best practices from other regions. It aims to engage interested members and increase the knowledge base of relevant sectors and experts.

- Proponents and donors of MRC's sustainable hydropower initiative include governments of the US, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Japan Asean Integration Fund, Asian Development Bank, MRC staff,  international conservation organizations such as WWF, and dam development consulting firms like Hydro Tasmania. These are the brains behind the concepts of sustainable hydropower.

- MRC hosts a discussion on sustainable hydropower and delivers its initiative to each national subcommittee (For Thailand, it's the Department of Water Resources) to hold meetings domestically. The format of each meeting tends to invite local communities to hear the concepts and learn about Rapid Basin-Wide Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Tool (R-SAT). The MRC views local communities a stakeholder.

Why Should Mekong Communities Care About Sustainable Hydropower?

Although affected communities continue to voice their concerns and illustrate the impacts of large-scale hydropower dams, past experience on dam building in the Mekong region shows that they are often ignored by dam developers. Capitalism and mainstream development ideologies prevail in developing countries. This in turns puts local communities at risk as many Mekong countries still lag behind in terms of democracy  and recognition of public/community involvement in decision-making process. Poor laws and regulations and lack of independent monitoring mechanism can also jeopardize community rights to natural resources and livelihoods.

Why Should We Question MRC's Role In Sustainable Hydropower Initiative?

MRC is established by the Mekong governments. MRC always claims that it is not obliged to collaborate with local communities; only to the Mekong governments. The 1995 Mekong Agreement still fails to listen to local and CSO's voices. Based on these questionable precedents, is it justifiable for MRC to start generating more impacts on the Mekong people?

Who Are the Stakeholders And For Whose Benefits Is It Really?

In most cases, the investors and developers of a dam project are international companies. Agreements or decisions on these projects usually overpass local community's awareness - even though they are the ones who would be immediately and directly affected by the change. Local communities rarely are informed or received any communication by dam developers. Most of the electricity produced is reserved for large industrial complexes and urban areas; rarely is it for the locals whose livelihood relies deeply with the river. Such resource battle is concealed to propaganda like "the few shall sacrifice for the many." It is impossible to wonder how such benefits can be justly distributed.

Who Defines "Sustainability"?

The team behind MRC's sustainable hydropower framework is composed of international experts. Their ideas are then passed on to national Mekong subcommittees. Yet, the genuine knowledge and understanding of the Mekong river - which are held among local communities - are often ignored or disregarded. The lack of space for local community to insert their relationship with and knowledge of the river is the underlying cause of today's inefficient large-scale water management planning. The definition of "sustainability" shall deliberate on this underlying cause before proceeding with any action that does not suit the Mekong basin.

While many Mekong communities are attending public hearings on sustainable hydropower, we should also take note on the concept and ideology behind such scheme, especially as it is proposed and fostered by the MRC and dam developers who are more likely to be benefiting from dams. This deliberation is the key to strengthen the mechanism towards a true sustainability.